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Help Clients Plan Menus for Weight Loss Success

By Lindsey Getz

Menu planning can have a huge impact on keeping the waistline slim and trim, but this is an area in which your clients probably struggle. We all know it’s easier to grab fast food and that making plans to eat at home most nights is a challenge. But if you arm your clients with practical tips, they’ll realize that eating at home is doable—whether or not they’re battling overweight or obesity.

“Whether you’re obese or just looking to eat healthfully, menu planning is going to be quite similar,” says Susan Nicholson, RD, LD, syndicated columnist for 7-Day Menu Planner and author of 7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies. “Menu planning for a healthier lifestyle is something everyone can benefit from.”

The Planning Phase

The first step to menu planning is to find time to sit down and plan for the week’s meals. During this phase, it’s important to be realistic. Tell clients not to plan meals that are time consuming if they don’t have the time available. Cooking at home doesn’t have to mean preparing extravagant meals.

“We all have the best intentions to go to the grocery store and buy lots of fruits and vegetables. Then we find that, by the end of the week, we didn’t have time to prepare them and ended up going to the drive-thru because it was fast and easy,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, nutrition policy consultant to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy). “You have to recognize the kind of lifestyle you really have. There’s no shame in buying a packaged bag of salad or frozen vegetables that are easy to prepare and make life simpler. It’s healthful convenience food.”

It’s also important to plan your meals around your activities. “Think about what you have going on each night,” Nicholson explains. “You have to plan a menu that will fit your schedule, even for the days you have activities, in order to be successful in sticking with your plans.”

Nicholson says the best way to plan for busy nights is to cook meals that will produce leftovers. The key to menu planning is always thinking ahead. “You might make a double or triple recipe of meatloaf and on the night you have an activity, eat a meatloaf sandwich,” she suggests. “You could incorporate that with a green salad in a bag for a nice meal that wasn’t a lot of effort and can still be eaten on a busy night.”

Making Smart Choices

While advising clients to plan meals, recommend they consider portion sizes and eat three meals per day. “A lot of the overweight clients I see are skipping breakfast, snacking at lunch or grabbing fast food, and then eating a huge dinner and snacking again in the evening,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy as well as the diabetes educator for NorthShore University HealthSystem in the Chicago area. “I’d like to see people plan for a bigger breakfast with more protein—and definitely get away from the traditional high-carb breakfast. I’m a big promoter of eggs for breakfast or even eating ‘dinner for breakfast.’ Have healthful dinner leftovers like chicken and wild rice. There’s no rule that says you have to eat breakfast foods for breakfast.”

“Try to eat protein for breakfast because it holds you longer,” Nicholson says. “If you can divide your day’s food into five or six feedings, you’ll never get so ravenously hungry that you overeat at any one meal. Start your plans with a daily healthful breakfast such as eggs, toast, and fruit and go from there.”

Starting off with a fruit or vegetable right from the start is a great way to set the precedent for a day of healthful eating. To incorporate more fruits and vegetables throughout the day, Giancoli suggests clients always keep a running tally in their head. “At every meal and snack you should have at least one or the other, if not both,” she says. “You’re aiming to have at least two pieces of fruit and two vegetables per day. It’s better to have more, but that’s a good starting point. If you throw a banana on top of your cereal at breakfast, you’ve already taken care of one. Planning ahead makes this easier to accomplish.”

And, of course, once you make your menu plans for the week, aim to stick with them. Tell clients to avoid shopping while they’re hungry, which often makes it difficult to stick to their plan. “I give my patients a nutrient-rich shopping list so they’re prepared,” Dobbins says. “Give your clients some ideas of foods they may have forgotten they liked, such as black beans or hummus. Help them realize it’s not as hard to incorporate these foods into their menu planning as they may have thought.” 

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.